In the mid-1990s, I was one of the owners of the Humor listserv centered out of the University of Georgia, which was dedicated to sharing humorous anecdotes and jokes of all kinds, via email, in those early days of the Internet. There were two groups of people in this particular listserv: those who received the humor emails, and those authorized to post the jokes. My responsibilities included monitoring the traffic and analyzing and reporting on statistical trends associated with the subscribers. This position made me one of the more visible owners of the group. To be a poster, you just needed to follow simple netiquette; such as if a joke could be considered offensive, provide adequate warning about who might get offended.
I remember one incident where two people posted anti-Semitic jokes, specifically making light of the Holocaust. I logged on to find that some subscribers had reached out to two people to complain about the nature of these jokes. As a result, the complainants found themselves getting spammed with more hateful emails, directly to their inbox. I quickly composed an email to the offended subscribers to ease their fears and concerns, and the whole thing blew over fairly quickly. In fairness to the two posters, they did say that the jokes would be offensive to Jewish readers.
I was reminded of this incident when my Facebook friend Nate Phelps, estranged son of Pastor Fred Phelps, reported that his father is dying and in hospice care on Sunday March 16. This news was picked up by large numbers of atheist blogs and Twitter feeds.
I take no joy in the news that anyone is dying, even those for whom I hold nothing but contempt. The way Nate reported this news, I got the distinct sense that he has not been permitted to grieve appropriately because the rest of the family still treats him as an outcast or pariah. Funerals and similar memorial services are intended, first and foremost, to assist the grieving. This is true in all religious traditions; if a religion does not do this, then it is not living up to one of the most basic intents and requirements of the faith. Ironic, then, that Fred Phelps’s primary mission, was to antagonize (rather than console) the grieving.
Assuming anyone cares enough to remember him, Fred Phelps will be remembered as a bigot and a bully – a sad little man whose own insecurities led to a life of hatred and anger. He justified his bile by quoting the Bible. I have a hard time getting angry over his words and actions, though. Freedom of speech, after all, does not preclude getting offended by someone else’s speech, no matter how repugnant, as we experience with racist jokes like the one mentioned earlier. He said many things that made others of faith uncomfortable. Despite the fact that his views aren’t that dissimilar to those espoused by Conservapedia, the extreme-right-wing website categorizes him as a lunatic. When you consider that his church would have nearly no members were it not for his family, his overall influence should be by and large negligible. He just found a way to increase its visibility through hate speech.
Many people are saying they’d like to protest his funeral when it actually happens. I sincerely hope this is bluster and not something that anyone is serious about. Yes, thanks to his litigiousness, it is something within our Constitutional rights. But what good could possibly come from people reducing themselves to his level? The world already knows how hateful he and his church are. Why bring more attention to them? Further, why follow his hateful message with another?